homebrew/HOW TO BREW

You can make brewing your own beer as simple or as complex as you like. If you want things to be easy, just buy a fermenter from your local homebrew shop, a tin of homebrew concentrate and some glucose or dextrose and you're set.

At the other end of the scale, you can go berserk and brew just like the brewers at your favorite brewery. It will take you a lot longer, but you'll end up with an excellent beer.

Preparation

Make a yeast starter
This is not essential, but will make sure your beer starts off a vigorous fermentation and ensure any rogue yeast doesn't get hold and ruin the brew. It also allows you to make sure the yeast is active (which one or two of ours haven't been, for some reason). Make the starter from dried or liquid yeast a couple of days before you plan brew. While 500ml is a good size, a bigger starter with more malt is even better. Oliver has recently taken to boiling 150g malt in 1.5 litres of water for 20 minutes to make a yeast starter. This will boil down to about one litre and will get your brew off to a great start.

  1. Boil at least 500ml of water, add about 4 tablespoons of malt (dried is easiest to handle) and boil for a couple of minutes.
  2. Put the lid on the saucepan and allow to cool. Put it in a sink of cold water if you want to speed things up a bit.
  3. Meanwhile, sterlilise an airlock, large bottle and bung for the bottle.
  4. When the mixture is cool, pour it into the bottle, then add the yeast. (If culturing yeast from a large bottle (750ml or larger) of bottle-conditioned beer, with the beer at room temperature pour off all but the last two centimetres or so and drink it. Then add the the cooled malt mixture and proceed. We know that the bottle is sterile apart from the yeast, so why dirty another bottle?)
  5. Give the bottle a good shake to dissolve oxygen, which was driven out by the boiling. The yeast needs oxygen to get off to a flying start.
  6. Fit the bung and airlock and leave it in a warm place 20ºC (68ºF) until you are ready to brew. Some people just place a piece of cotton wool in the neck of the bottle. This is not as effective, but it's up to you.
  7. If there is no action in the airlock within 24 hours, it is likely the yeast you added was dead. Make another starter with new yeast.

If you don't bother to make a yeast starter, it is beneficial to rehydrate the yeast before pitching it into the wort. Just mix the yeast with some tepid water about half an hour before adding it to the wort.

Boil the brewing water
This, too, is not essential, but if you decide to do it, boil it the day before so it can cool, because this volume of water takes a long, long time to cool.

Sterlise your equipment
Pour some steriliser into your fermenter and swirl it around. Run some through the tap and don't forget the lid. Rinse thoroughly and replace the lid.
Also sterilise any other equipment, such as spoons, which will not be boiled.

Preparing the wort

Kit brewing

  1. Place the can of beer mix and any liquid malt in a sink of hot water to let it warm up so it's easier to pour.
  2. Boil about two to four litres of water in your saucepan or boiler.
  3. Add the malt, sugar, glucose or other soluble ingredients and bring the contents back to the boil. Be careful, especially with liquid malt, that the ingredients do not catch on the bottom of the pan. Boiling the malt extract (there's no need to boil the other sugars) for at least an hour is a good idea, as it causes protein, which can cause hazy beer, to come out of solution.
  4. Turn off the heat, add the can of beer and dissolve.
  5. Put some cold water in the fermenter and add the malt mixture. Fill up the fermenter with water. The more splashing the better, as this will dissolve oxygen which the yeast needs.
  6. Skip to the Fermentation section below.

Starting with grains and extra hops

This is a very simple way to make big changes and improvements to your kit beers. It really doesn't require much more effort or involve much more time than making a simple kit brew, as described above.

Adding small quantites of grain or hops can make big a difference to the final taste, color, aroma, bitterness and character of your beer. Most kit beers are not overly hoppy, so if you like a fairly bitter or aromatic beer you might want to add some extra hops. Grains can affect the color, body, taste and head of your beer. Adding hops and grain can transform the beer into a different style altogether.

See our ingredients page for more information about using hops and grain to produce different effects.

Grain
  1. Add the grains to cold water in a saucepan. There should be enough water for the grain to mix quite freely.
  2. Slowly bring the water to boiling point, stirring occasionally. Do not boil the mixture as this can bring out the harsh tannins from the husk of the grain.
  3. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve or gauze. Return the liquid it to the saucepan and boil it for five minutes or so to kill any remaining enzymes from the grain.
  4. Add it to your fermenter, along with the beer kit and other ingredients, prepared as above.
  5. Skip to the Fermentation section below.
Hops
  1. Boil a few tablespoons of malt in about two litres of water in a saucepan. The malt helps extract the bitterness and aroma from the hops.
  2. If using the hops for bitterness, boil them for about one hour. If you want aroma, use the best quality hops and add them in the last 15 minutes of the boil. If you want, you can boil some hops for bitterness and add aroma hops in the last 15 minutes.
  3. Strain the mixture gently with a sieve or gauze.
  4. Add it to the fermenter, along with the beer kit and other ingredients, prepared as above.
  5. Skip to the Fermentation section below.

Malt extract brewing

If you have already used extra hops and grain in your can beers, malt extract brewing is not much more complicated. You will decide what goes into your beer, which means more control over the finished product's taste, color and body.

  1. If using liquid malt, soften it in a sink of hot water.
  2. Prepare any grains as described above, but add the liquid to the boil rather than the fermenter.
  3. Ideally, the quantity of wort you boil will be the same as the final volume (i.e. you won't have to add any water at the end.) This helps extract the maximum amount of bitterness and flavor from the hops. However, unless you have a boiler or some fairly large saucepans, this won't be possible. Don't worry, though; we've never boiled the full quantity when making a beer and it's still been pretty nice.
  4. Boil the water, then add the malt and dissolve, being careful not to let it catch on the bottom.
  5. Add any bittering (copper) hops and adjust the heat to a good rolling boil with the lid on loosely.
  6. Boil the wort for an hour, preferrably one-and-a-half hours. After an hour of boiling, proteins begin to break down, and will settle out of the wort while it is cooling or during fermentation. This helps avoid protein haze, which can cause cloudy beer.
  7. About 15 minutes from the end of the boil, add any finishing hops which will add aroma.
  8. At the same time, add any copper finings.
  9. Finally, add any other soluble ingredients such as sugar, glucose, lactose and corn syrup and boil briefly.
  10. Skip to the Fermentation section below.

Partial and full mash brewing

Geoff and I have not yet tried mashing. We are currently gathering equipment with a view to trying our hand, possibly when Geoff builds his brewery. In the meantime, we recommend you visit our Homebrew and beer forum for information.

Fermentation

Cooling the boiling liquid
If you end up with a large quantity of boiling liquid (as is likely to happen with malt extract brews), mixing it with cold water in the fermenter will not bring it down to the required temperature. Placing the saucepan or boiler in a sink or bath of cold water is a good way to cool the liquid. Stir the cold water and wort every five minutes or so to speed up the process. Add the cooled wort to the fermenter, being careful to leave behind any solids that may have settled at the bottom of the saucepan or boiler.

Get the temperature right
The temperature of the wort needs to be below 30 degrees celcius, and ideally about 25 degrees, before you pitch the yeast. If it's too hot the yeast might be killed or the fermentation so vigorous that beer foams everywhere. High temperatures also produce off tastes. Adjust the quantities of hot and (preferably boiled and cooled) cold water that you top up the fermenter with to achieve the desired temperature. Usually no hot water will be needed. If the temperature is too high high at first, put the lid on and wait (maybe overnight) until it's dropped. Ice blocks made from cooled, boiled water can also help get the temperature down in warmer weather. Don't fill up the fermenter totally yet, as the yeast starter will add volume.

Pitch the yeast
When the temperature is right, just pour the yeast starter in and give the whole lot a good stir. Fit the lid and airlock securely and place the fermenter somewhere out of direct sunlight, and preferably dark if it is not opaque.

Take an SG reading
This is another step that is not essential, but it will help you know when the beer is ready to bottle and what the final alcohol level is. To take a reading, simply run off some of the wort into the tall glass or plastic tube provided, place the hydrometer in, give it a twirl to remove any bubbles and take a reading from the scale on the side. Don't pour this wort back into the fermenter, because it may have become contaminated. Why not pour it into a glass and cover it with plastic lunch wrap. It's interesting to smell and taste the wort as it transforms from a sweet liquid to beer during the course of fermentation.

Let the yeast do their thing
The ideal temperature for fermenting ales is about 18ºC to 22ºC (64ºF to 72ºF). If using a true lager yeast, the best temperature is about 10ºC (50ºF), but a more realistic temperature for the bombrewer is in the range of 10ºC to 15ºC (50ºF to 59ºF).

Heating and cooling
If you time your brewing well, you should rarely need to use a heater or any cooling. We tend to brew lagers in the cool winter months and ales in the slightly warmer spring and autumn. A constant temperature is also important, as fluctuating temperatures can confuse the yeast and affect your beer.
If the need arises to heat the wort, the best way is with an aquarium immersion heater. Other methods include a belt heater that is wrapped around the fermenter, placing the fermenter on a heating mat or using a “hot box”, which is a wooden box with a light globe in it.
Cooling is a different story. The best way is placing the fermenter in a refrigerator with a thermostat to keep the beer at the required temperature. This may be taking your love of homebrewing a bit far (or maybe not).
Sitting the fermenter in an ice bath is another method of cooling. If you only need to lower the temperature by a couple of degrees, try wrapping the fermenter in a wet towel. A fan will help things along.

When is it ready to bottle or barrel?
The time it takes to ferment the wort will vary depending on how much sugar there is, how much yeast was pitched, the type of yeast and the fermentation temperature. However, it should take about a week and is unlikely to take more than two weeks. There are a couple of ways to tell if the fermentation is finished.
  • If bubbling in the airlock stops. Be wary of this method, since a leaky fermenter can be misleading. Confirm that the beer is ready to bottle by taking an SG reading.
  • Take SG readings. If two readings two days apart give the same result, fermentation is over.
After fermentation finishes, wait a couple of days to let the yeast settle and the beer to clear before bottling.

Fining
If you plan to bottle the beer and use finings to help clear the yeast, add the finings to the fermenter when fermentation has finished. If you are using household gelatine, mix a 15g (half-ounce) sachet in a cut of hot water, allow it to cool, draw off about 500ml (two cups) of beer and mix it together, then add the mixture back into the beer and stir. Allow about a day for the beer to clear before bottling. If using isinglass, follow the instructions on the packet. For more information, see finings in the homebrew ingredients section.

Work out the alcohol content
You can only do this if you've taken an SG before fermentation and one at the end. The formula for working out alcohol content is: Original gravity minus final gravity divided by 7.46 (or times by .134, which is the inverse of 7.46). So if a beer has an original gravity of 1064 and a final gravity of 1020, the formula would be (1064-1020) ÷ 7.46 = 44 ÷ 7.46 = 5.89 per cent.

Barelling

Some homebrewers, particularly in Britain, store their beer in a barrel to mature before bottling. This allows the beer to develop further and also allows some harsh flavors to dissipate. A general rule about how long to mature in the barrel is the original gravity divided by two. So, if your beer had an OG of 1050, it should be matured in the barrel for 25 days. Some very strong beers, such as imperial stout, can be matured in the barrel for several months, and even years, before they are bottled. If you plan to use gelatine finings, add them either at the time of barreling or after several days. If using Isinglass, allow leave the beer for about a week as it will not work if there is too much yeast present. See instructions above.

Bottling

Prepare the bottles
If you have a sterilising machine, squirt steriliser into each bottle. Otherwise, pour a little steriliser into each bottle and give it a shake. Rinse each bottle using Oliver's Bottle Rinser or by putting a bit of water in each, swirling, emptying and repeating.

Prime the bottles
Adding a small amount of cane sugar or dried malt to each bottle produces a secondary fermentation. Because the carbon dioxide created cannot escape, it dissolves into the beer, creating bubbles when you uncap the bottle.

Whether you prime is up to you. We've found that using a full measure (about a teaspoon) of sugar in a 750ml bottle results in an overcarbonated beer. A half measure is good for brews that should be on the effervescent side, such as lagers. But for many beers that are not usually very fizzy, such as ales and stouts, we rarely use priming sugar; there is already some gas dissolved in the beer and some will be created after bottling as the yeast acts on slow-fermenting malts.

Experiment and see what works for you.

Filling
Attach your little bottler to the fermenter tap and turn on the tap. Put a glass under the little bottler and push upwards to let some beer through. This first third of a glass or so will be a bit murky from yeast that is stirred up, so discard it. Take an SG reading by drawing off some beer into the tube, floating the hydrometer and spinning off any bubbles. Fill each bottle to about five centimetres (two inches) below the neck.

We have never been unfortunate enough to bottle beer by syphoning, so use this as a guide and work your way through it.

Capping
Sterilise the caps by pouring solution over them or soaking them then giving them a good rinse. Your capper would have come with instructions. Basically they are:
  • With a hand capper, place a cap on the bottle, put the capper over the top then belt it with a hammer.
  • If using a lever capper, put a cap on the bottle then place the capper over the top and pull down on the handles.
  • Most bench cappers have a magnet that holds the cap. Simply put the cap in place, place a bottle underneath and pull down firmly on the handle. Just make sure the cap doesn't go off-centre as you pull the handle.
Finally, if you primed the bottle tip it upsidedown to help mix in the sugar or malt. For more information on cappers see the equipment page.

Storage

Secondary fermentation
If you have primed the bottles, they need to be put somewhere for a couple of days so secondary fermentation can occur and carbonate the beer. Ideally, this will be at the same temperature at which the beer was fermented (i.e. about 18ºC to 22ºC (64ºF to 72ºF) for ales and 10ºC to 15ºC (50ºF to 59ºF) for lager).
Lagering

Most commercial lagers are stored at very cold temperatures for a time before they are released for sale. This allows the beer to develop its characteristic crisp, clean taste. The best lagers are lagered for up to several months, cheaper lagers for a couple of days. Some ales are also lagered. At home, it's easy to lager beer. After secondary fermentation, just pop the bottles in the fridge for a few weeks or months. You may be surprised at the difference in taste it produces. Keep some of the bottles unlagered so you can compare.

Storage
If you have a cellar, this is the ideal place to store your beer. However, unfortunately most of us don't, so a cool, dry and dark place somewhere in your house is the next best thing. Also, fluctuating temperatures are bad for beer.

Maturation
Homebrew matures just like wine. If you can stand it, keep your beer for at least six months before you try it. If you can't wait that long, note how the beer becomes more rounded with age and loses any harsh edge it may have when young.

In fact, some homebrews that you might think are downright failures may actually become fairly good beers with age. Take Geoff's No.41Bockin’ Good Beer, for instance. It was brewed with one kilogram of golden syrup and bottled on 3.9.93. Geoff says it was terrible and sickly sweet at the first tasting. It hadn't changed much when we tasted it about five years later and tipped it down the sink (this is a drastic step for us). But when we tried it in 2000, when it was almost seven years old, while it wasn't a great beer, it was certainly drinkable.

There are some beers, such as very strong imperial stouts, that are at their peak after five years. Of course, you can drink them well before that.

How long will the beer keep?
Generally, the higher the alcohol content the longer the beer will keep. However, homebrew, as it is not filtered and pasteurised like most commercial beer, will keep for a long time. Many of our beers are more than three years old and showing no signs of being over the hill. Shepherd Neame says its Thomas Hardy's Ale (12.5 per cent ABV) will keep for 20 years.


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